Hurling and camogie

Antrim ease past gallant Donegal

From Cahair O'Kane at Celtic Park

Ulster Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Antrim 3-24 Donegal 1-10

DONEGAL offered as much as they possibly could have but discovered in the second half just how far down the road they still have to go.

A week after they claimed the Division 3A title at the same venue, they were spirited in the extreme but were overwhelmed in the second half by an experimental Antrim side.

Level until James McNaughton's 28th minute goal that was so wonderfully crafted by Conor McCann, Donegal worked tirelessly in the beautiful Foyleside sunshine but the legs gave out as they faced an onslaught into a stiff wind.

In the end, 20 points separated the sides as Antrim qualified for their 16th consecutive provincial final, having won all of the previous 15.

The winners hit nine first half wides that for a while offered an olive branch to Donegal's hopes of an unfathomable shock, but beyond the first of McNaughton's two goals it never looked likely to end favourably for the underdogs.

Up until that point, the Tír Chonaill men had given as good as they got. Jamesie Donnelly was a throw-back on the edge of his square, winning an old-style, mano-a-mano contest with Conor Carson.

Lee Henderson was almost faultless from the frees and up front, Tipperary native David Flynn again showed enough to suggest that he will slot very comfortably into the surroundings of Division 2B next year.

His goal was superbly taken on 15 minutes, when Gerry Gilmore spooned a rough ball off to the Roscrea native, who took a magnificent first touch, shortened his grip and lashed into the top corner.

That put Donegal 1-1 to 0-3 ahead but the Antrim half-forward line was just starting to find their legs, and along with Conor Johnston inside, they began to take over.

They were more than aided by the fine display of Daniel McKernan, who only lost stripes for a number of bad wides but overall generally ran the game from a deep-lying position at midfield.

It was level at 1-3 to 0-6 when Niall McKenna made a superb fetch from a Ryan Elliot puckout and fed Conor McCann. He charged at the heart of the Donegal defence and at the last second, popped out a perfect blind pass to James McNaughton, who lashed into the roof of the net.

A slick move involving Ciaran Johnston, who showed a willingness to join the attack on more than one occasion, was finished by Niall McKenna to make it 1-7 to 1-3.

Donegal almost had a second goal from Flynn moments later but from an almost identical position, he couldn't take advantage of a defensive mix-up and his shot rattled away to safety off the crossbar.

And barely 60 seconds later, the faint hopes of a shock were killed off when Conor Carson punished the one moment's hesitation Jamesie Donnelly showed all day by flicking into the path of McNaughton, who lashed home his second major.

Maol Connolly added a couple of scores to send Antrim in at half-time leading by 2-9 to 1-5 and knowing that they'd have the luxury of the wind behind them when they returned.

But to give the winners credit, they bucked the trend of most games of this ilk by hitting more scores in a pedestrian second half than they had in the first.

Their shooting improved from all angles and the 1-15 they racked up at the clubhouse end in front of barely 100 supporters was a positive from their perspective.

Loughgiel's ace free-taker Connolly was responsible for a fair degree of it with his accuracy from the dead ball, bringing home a 0-10 haul from a combination of frees, 65s and from play.

The second half was almost 15 minutes old by the time Donegal added to their half-time tally thanks to an effort from Danny Cullen, who similar to McKernan, had a fairly influential game barring his finishing.

By that stage, the Saffrons – wearing their unfamiliarly but tasty green number, while Donegal changed into their white – had their third goal.

It was a soft one to concede too as Donegal ‘keeper Paul Burns was distracted by a combination of the sun and Conor Carson's presence in front of him, and allowed Daniel McKernan's long-range effort to float untouched into the back of the net.

Donegal, aided by a sympathetic referee throughout it must be said, battled on and managed to add a further four points in the final quarter, three of them from Lee Henderson frees, and the last of them fittingly a fine effort from David Flynn.

But Antrim hit a late burst of six points in the final seven minutes to set up a second consecutive decider with Armagh, who overcame Down in the other semi-final.

It was what it was for Dominic McKinley, the man charged with the Bainisteoir bib as head of Antrim's four-man management outfit.

He is happy to see the Ulster Championship in its new window before the Championship begins and for Donegal, hopes of a challenge for the Nicky Rackard will be high following their good League.

Saturday was never going to make much difference to Antrim's progression, but for a fiercely passionate Ulster hurling man like McKinley, he knows what it will do for Donegal

“I say this about our team too, every so often, you need to find out where you are and how far that's away from you. They'll find out today how far the speed and skill and fluency in the play and so on is away.

“They'll have learned a great deal from it, and it doesn't do you any harm as a once off but that doesn't do you any good if you're getting that every week.

“They're probably starting to wonder where they're at and they know now. It's a big day for them to get up against Antrim and a few of their players did very well.”

With Armagh up first in that Nicky Rackard campaign, it will have done Donegal no harm to test themselves.

The gap from top to bottom in the province may be narrowing, but only very slightly on this evidence.


Antrim: R Elliot; R Diamond, P Burke (0-1), Ciaran Johnston; S McCrory, O McFadden, J Maskey; D McKernan (1-1), P McGill (0-1); M Connolly (0-10, 0-4 65s, 0-3frees), C McCann (0-1), N McKenna (0-4); J McNaughton (2-0), C Carson, Conor Johnston (0-5)

Subs: S Rooney for McCrory (39), D Murphy for Conor Johnston (55)

Donegal: P Burns; D Grant, J Donnelly, P Doherty; J Boyle, C McDermott, C Finn; D Cullen (0-1), L Henderson (0-8, 0-7frees); G Gilmore, C Melaugh, S Curran; S Gillespie, N Cleary, D Flynn (1-1)

Subs: A Stokes for Finn (29), J De Ward for Curran (54), C Doherty for Gillespie (61), R Kee for Melaugh (66), P Nelson for Cleary (70)

Referee: J Clarke (Cavan)

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Hurling and camogie